WASHINGTON – Hurricane Michael hit the Gulf Coast of Florida on Wednesday, slamming the southern US state with tree-snapping winds, drenching rain and a storm surge expected to inundate coastal towns.
Michael developed into an “extremely dangerous” Category-4 storm early Wednesday before its strike on the Florida panhandle. Its winds slowed to 205 kilometres per hour (kph) a few hours after making landfall, making it a dangerous Category-3 storm.
The scenario drew comparisons to Hurricane Camille, a Category-5 story that hit the Gulf Coast of the US in 1969, killing more than 250 people.
Michael is expected to continue to weaken as it moves toward the north-east on Thursday at about 26 kph, the National Hurricane Center said.
Heavy rainfall could produce life-threatening flash flooding from the Florida panhandle into portions of south-east Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and south-eastern Virginia, it added.
People who did not evacuate were told to immediately get to shelter or interior room as the eye of the massive swirling storm moved over land near Mexico Beach, Florida, with wind speeds of 250 kph.
Michael’s hurricane-force winds extended up to 75 kilometres from the eye when it hit. Among the most serious dangers was storm surge, which officials said could be more than 3 metres in some places.
Storm damage had already caused power outages in the area. Gulf Power said more than 118,000 customers were affected by outages that began within a few hours of the storm reaching land at about 1:30 pm (1730 GMT). They were among 288,000 total customers in the panhandle who were without power by 5 pm Wednesday.
Brock Long, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), said Michael was one of the most intense hurricanes to strike the area since 1851, calling it a “hurricane of the worst kind.”
He warned that Georgia also needed to prepare and said areas of South Carolina, which has not yet fully recovered from Hurricane Florence, would also be affected by flooding due to heavy rain.
US President Donald Trump expressed concern over people who opted to stay in the sparsely populated panhandle despite an order to evacuate posted by Governor Rick Scott, who mobilized 2,500 members of the National Guard and up to 1,000 utility workers to repair downed power lines.
Trump said some of the areas are very poor, and that hampered the evacuation. It’s been “very difficult for people without the necessary resources to leave.”
To those who stayed, Trump said, “God bless you all” after being briefed by Long and other emergency management officials in the Oval Office.
People who stay behind and experience a storm surge “don’t usually live to tell about it,” Long said.
Trump plans to visit the affected area, which backed him overwhelmingly in the 2016 presidential election, early next week, deputy White House press secretary Lindsay Walters said.
Trump also received storm updates from Alabama Governor Kay Ivey and Georgia Governor Nathan Deal on a phone call made during his flight to a campaign rally in Erie, Pennsylvania. -DPA